A survivor offers guidance to women who are battling cancer now
October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, so it made sense that I write this month’s health and fitness column on the disease. In choosing a focus for the piece, however, I wanted to take a different tack from so much of what we’ve already read. We typically learn about the latest preventive measures, possible causes, possible cures and, now, precise genetic predictors. That’s all helpful, but there is precious little of actual use to the woman who already has breast cancer—the woman who is dealing with it right now.
I wanted to write a piece, then, in direct address to those women for whom preventive measures and predictors are all things of the past. I wanted to speak to the women who have asked themselves, “Okay, I’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer. What now?” I wanted to find some words of encouragement and reassurance as a reply. To find them, I went straight to the source: to a stalwart breast cancer survivor for whom words and advice are truly métier—who once, long ago, taught my writing class and counseled me as I made college applications during my senior year at Country Day— Karen Kelly Becker. I reached her at her new home in Ponte Vedra, Florida, and, over a series of written exchanges and phone conversations, this gifted lifelong teacher, adviser and writer described her experience and shared her wisdom in her own eloquent words.
“Like my mother and my maternal grandmother before me,” she wrote, “I was diagnosed with postmenopausal breast cancer. Unlike many women with breast cancer, I never felt much initial fear, perhaps because it was already an old acquaintance of mine: My mother courageously battled breast cancer for the last 22 years of her life. Ultimately, she became my role model for dealing with it myself—so I did my best to face it squarely, didn’t mince words when talking about it and tried never to lose perspective. And, although I didn’t exactly fear my adversary, I certainly had a healthy respect for it.”
I asked Karen, this charismatic, fearless, erstwhile breast cancer patient who had drop-kicked her cancer through the goal posts of life, “What advice would you give to women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer? What do you wish you had known—or wish someone who had had breast cancer had told you—when you were still a patient and not yet a survivor?” What follows here is what she learned and what we, in turn, pass on to you together—along with our best wishes, thoughts and prayers for your healing and good health.
The Good Doctor
Having a doctor you truly connect with can make all the difference on your road to recovery. Take care to find a doctor who “gets” you: Make sure your doctor is the right doctor for you.
KBB: My surgeon, Dr. Garth Davis [of Methodist Hospital in Houston], proved to be one of my best sources of support—and that was an unexpected bonus. He inspired such confidence in me from the very beginning that I had absolutely no qualms about choosing him as my surgeon. Dr. Davis addresses the whole person, takes the time to get to know each of his patients, treats them with unfailing respect, and presents the patient-surgeon relationship as a collaborative effort in the healing process: He had his job to do; I had mine. I was also grateful that he totally seemed to “get” me; not surprisingly, we still [five years hence] e-mail back and forth two or three times each year.
The Best Medicine
Research now backs up what you knew as a kid— just plain laughter makes you feel better. Augment your doctor’s orders with some good comedic therapy and never underestimate the power of laughter to heal.
KKB: A good sense of humor can be an invaluable resource when it comes to maintaining a healthy perspective—and laughter can be a potent weapon in fighting the disease. As sick as I felt when I was undergoing chemotherapy, I laughed my way through much of that summer, with the help of my family and friends—and my students. I’ll never forget the September day when I told my Writing Workshop kids that I was really tired of wearing a little do-rag bandanna gizmo to cover my peachfuzzed head. Without missing a beat, they said, with guileless adolescent logic, “Well, then why don’t you just take if OFF, Mrs. B?!” Knowing that I could trust them, I immediately did exactly that, at which point they spontaneously cheered. Then we all hooted and hollered over our shared accomplishment—and, thanks to my students, never again did I don my do-rag!
The “Right” Way
No way is the “right” way to deal with cancer— except the one that’s right for you. Choose the coping strategies that work best for your personality, preferences and lifestyle.
KKB: There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with the disease emotionally and psychologically; what works well for some may not suit others. For example, many women gain significant strength and sustenance from actively participating in support groups; I, on the other hand, just didn’t feel the need or the inclination to go that route. Throughout my journey, I felt an inner peace, bolstered by the support of my family, friends, doctors, and the caring school community in which I taught—and that combination of internal strength and external support really gave me everything I needed. But so much depends upon the individual and the circumstance. I would never criticize any other woman’s approach to handling her cancer. I would tell any woman with this disease: “Take charge of your breast cancer; don’t let it rule you. To put it another way: Don’t allow yourself to be defined by your breast cancer; at least up to a point, YOU define the role it plays in your life.”
Karen Kelly Becker taught English and writing for three decades at Metairie Park Country Day School and Episcopal High School in Houston. She has been cancer-free for more than five years.
The Most Important Test You’ll Ever Take
Women today enjoy a host of advantages that women of previous generations never could: We can vote, play school-sanctioned sports, wear skirts sans pantyhose, download Sex and the City—the whole series—and now we can find out long before a fateful mammogram that we might be genetically predisposed to breast cancer. Through a fairly new but quite successful genetic testing process usually involving a simple blood test, we can now learn whether we have inherited genetic mutations that may increase our risk of getting certain cancers.
For breast cancer risk, the test involves looking for altered genes such as BRCA1 and BRCA2, mutations that indicate much higher risk for developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer than women without a mutation. Candidates for BRCA testing include women with breast cancer in two or more close relatives, such as a mother and two sisters; early onset of breast cancer (often before age 50) in family members; history of breast cancer in more than one generation; cancer in both breasts in one or more family members; ovarian cancer at any age; one or more BRCA positive relatives; and/or Eastern and Central European (Ashkenazi) Jewish ancestry with a family history of breast and/or ovarian cancer.
Women in New Orleans today have the advantage of having BRCA gene testing available locally at the Center for Restorative Breast Surgery (www.breastcenter.com, 1717 St. Charles Ave., 899-2800). The center hosts its second in an open series of monthly support groups, titled EnCourage, on Wednesday, October 10 from 5 to 6:30 p.m. In recognition of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, this EnCourage meeting will focus on genetic testing. For more information on gene testing or to schedule an appointment for a genetic testing consultation, contact the center for Restorative Breast Surgery at 899-2800.
Knowledge Is Power (To Heal): Online Breast Cancer Resorces
cagno.org – Cancer Association of Greater New Orleans
Find local breast cancer support groups or make a donation to help cancer
patients in the New Orleans area who have limited income and no health
nationalbreastcancer.org – National Breast Cancer Foundation
Watch Beyond the Shock, an hour-long interactive presentation that helps
patients and supporters understand breast cancer; join MyNBCF, an online
community of breast cancer patients, supporters, survivors and medical
livestrong.org – The Lance Armstrong Foundation
Learn about cancer, download worksheets or order a LIVESTRONG
Survivorship Workbook to help you organize and guide your cancer experience;
get one-on-one support through the LIVESTRONG SurvivorCare program; hear
komen.org – Susan G. Komen for the Cure
Find comprehensive breast cancer information; take the Komen NetQuiz to test
your breast cancer knowledge; browse the Multimedia Library for its wide variety of
educational videos—which you can watch online, for free.
Visit every day, where the click on the “Click Here to Give—It’s FREE” button
helps fund free mammograms (paid for by site sponsors and provided
through the National Breast Cancer Foundation) for women in need.